The Rise of Podemos

Podemos seeks to transcend traditional divisions between left and right and to reframe politics as a struggle between the people and the elite.

In the European elections held in May 2014, Podemos (We Can), a platform established just five months before by a group of young university professors managed to mobilize more than 1,250,000 voters (8% of the electorate) and send five representatives to the European Parliament. Speaking to the crowd gathering at the Party’s headquarters to celebrate their victory, its young and charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, announced that this had only been the beginning and that he and his party aspired to make it to the government in 2015 general elections. “The process to liberate the peoples of the South from German colonization,” he announced, “has just begun.”

Podemos’ rise was a major surprise: polling institutes had noted Spaniards’ dissatisfaction with the two main parties, PP and PSOE (conservative and socialist, respectively) which had been ruling Spain since 1982, but they had not been able to anticipate that voters would favor Podemos in a such a massive way. But what happened afterwards was even more remarkable: over the following months, with every new poll, Podemos would always double its share of potential votes until they beat the two main parties. In July, just one month after the elections, a poll revealed that Podemos had almost doubled its share to 15% of the potential vote. And in November, two further polls showed another doubling of the potential vote, with Podemos support spiking to 22% and 28%, putting them on par with the Socialist Party (26.2%) and above the Conservative Party (20.7%).

All of a sudden, a party formed just a few months earlier had serious chance of making it to the government of the country, overturning the general consensus and bipartisan system dominating Spain’s politics since the restoration of democracy back in 1978. Observers described the phenomenon as a “tsunami” threatening to engulf the establishment parties, and investors are worried that after thirty years or remarkable stability, Spain might move into political instability, uncertainty and an entirely new partysystem.

What is Podemos and what does it stand for? Ideologically, Podemos is a left-wing party drawing its inspiration from both Latin American national-popular movements (Chavez’s Venezuela, Correa’s Ecuador, Morales’ Bolivia and Kirchner’s Argentina) and Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza in Greece. In its origin, its leaders have shown utter hostility to both neoliberalism, which they describe as socially, democratically and environmentally devastating, and liberal democracy, which they see as an intrinsically corrupt and unfair system by which the upper classes legitimize their grip on all levels of social, political and economic life. Regarding foreign policy, Podemos’ leader has declared he would want Spain to pull out of NATO, to invite American troops to leave the country, repeal the Lisbon Treaty and have debtor countries allying against Germany’s dominance.

Like many other new parties across Europe, Podemos seeks to represent the losers from the economic crisis and capitalize on people’s anger about political corruption and social inequality. Accordingly, their economic program speaks of nationalizations of public utilities, the auditing and eventual restructuring of national debt, the setting of higher taxes for the rich, the increase in minimum wages, the lowering of retirement age and work hours and the rising of pensions, but overall, empowering the disempowered to make both the economy and the political system work for the people and not the economic or political elites.

What it’s new about Podemos is that they seek to transcend classical divisions between left and right and reframe politics as a struggle between the many (the people) and the few (the elite, or as they call it, mimicking Beppo Grillo in Italy, “la casta”). By interpreting all the ills of Spain in terms of the elite having let the people down, they seek to bring down what they describe as the “1978 regime,” i.e. the Constitutional package (monarchy, liberal democracy and market economy) which has ruled over Spaniards during the last 30 years. Podemos thus reinterprets populism from the left in order to reach hegemony (their preferred term, owing to their idol, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist imprisoned by Mussolini).

What explains the meteoric rise of Podemos and what will be the consequences? Their extraordinary success is due to the combined economic and political crisis. With the emphasis of economic policy placed on efficiency, flexibility and competitiveness, the government has forgotten the people. While savings banks were injected with massive amounts of money to cover their losses in the real-estate market, people were mercilessly evicted from their homes, unable to meet their mortgage payments. The impact of structural reforms and austerity has therefore been uneven, with the gap between the rich and the poor widening, public services deteriorating and job insecurity spreading.

But the straw that has broken the camel’s back is political corruption: while many have had to endure salary devaluation, unemployment and a deep sense of insecurity about the future, they have witnessed the prosecution of one politician after another on a daily basis (including the former King’s daughter and son in law) under accusations of corruption or mismanagement of public money. To some political scientists, the combination of extreme unfairness, inequality and political corruption and privileges for the elites means that the underlying social contract reigning in post-Franco Spain has been severely damaged, if not broken. Polls show that a large number of people have effectively stopped trusting in the established political institutions or political parties and would want to bring about a radical change, which is what Podemos promises to deliver (a recent campaign video released by Podemos just claims: “Out with all!”). Podemos can thus be seen as the consequence of the lack of vision and mistakes of the main two parties. The Socialists are both blamed for not having detected the magnitude of the crisis beforehand, and then—when the shock came—for having too easily given up on social policy and too hastily embracing austerity. At the other end, the Conservatives are being blamed for not having been firm on corruption, not having delivered on the main electoral promises, and for not having been able to create jobs and new opportunities. As a result, in a very short span of time, Spaniards have moved from proudly celebrating their best thirty years in history (1978–2008) to a state of profound dissatisfaction and pessimism about the future.

While Podemos represents an extraordinary phenomenon in Spain, it is not so unique in Europe. In fact, the rise of Podemos answers the question which many have been posing about Spain during the last four years. Ever since May 9, 2010, international observers have been wondering why Spaniards are not revolting. On that day the Spanish President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, under intense pressure from international debt markets and his European colleagues (including also a tense late night call with President Obama), was forced to implement tough austerity measures, extend retirement age and relax lay-off conditions for workers.

With almost 27% unemployment at the peak of the crisis, including 55% youth unemployment, and the highest increase in inequality across the European Union, Spain has undoubtedly been among the hardest-hit countries by the crisis, next probably only to Greece. Yet while all over Europe we have witnessed radical parties—both left and right—trying to capitalize on the impact of the crisis to challenge mainstream political forces (Syriza in Greece, the 5 Star Movement in Italy, the Front National in France, the UKIP in Britain), Spaniards have kept remarkably quiet.

A hint of revolt did take place on May 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Spaniards captured the attention of international media by taking to the streets and occupying the plazas chanting“you don’t represent us” to the country’s politicians. Yet the Puerta del Sol movement, though it managed to replicate itself globally (recall the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the 99percent movement), dissolved without effectively challenging the establishment. In fact, rather than revolting, in the subsequent elections held in October 2011, the Conservative Party of Mariano Rajoy with its agenda of austerity and structural reform was given an absolute majority.

Various forces combined to keep the Spaniards quiet. First, the Spanish far-right, still suffering from its association with the Franco regime, was unable to awaken Spanish nationalism by manipulating immigration issues or anti-German sentiment. At the other end of the spectrum, the Spanish far-left (i.e. the former Communists), which had always been largely pro-European, did not dare challenge the euro as Spaniards still largely identified with Europe despite the crisis. As in Greece, Podemos’ first and main victims have been the former Communists, apparently unable to understand that 19th and 20th century class-struggles have been superseded and replaced by more horizontal societies and new types of conflicts and cleavages.

One exception to the remarkable absence of populism in Spain has been Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, both economically and culturally. Here secessionists have been able to exploit the euro crisis to excite anti-Spanish sentiments by arguing that Catalans are being milked by the rest of Spain and are not sufficiently reimbursed for it with recognition of their language and culture. Still, except for Catalonia, Spain had been largely void of populism, despite the crisis. Until now.

Now, paradoxically, at a time when Spanish structural reforms garner the praise of international observers and the German government uses the Spanish case as a model for France and others to follow, opinion polls suggest a rise in discontent which could lead to the collapse of the traditional two-party system which has dominated Spanish politics over the last 30 years. If anything, this shows that the economic reforms adopted by the eurozone, even if successful economically, are not politically sustainable and threaten to destroy those who implement it.

José Ignacio Torreblanca

Professor of Politics at UNED University and Head of the Madrid Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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